Thursday, March 3, 2011

Angela Balcita talks about Moonface

Angela Balcita has written an incredible brave, incredibly funny and moving book about kidney failure, organ donors and the path of true love. I was thrilled that she agreed to answer my questions. Thank you, Angela!

Your story originated in Modern Love. What made you decide to write about it for that column, and what was it like expanding it into a memoir?

Actually, MOONFACE did not originate in Modern Love. I began writing the story in graduate school. The first few chapters of MOONFACE made up my thesis for my MFA degree in nonfiction writing. After graduate school, I held on to those chapters, not quite sure if I should continue with the project or move on to something else. At the time, I enjoyed reading the Modern Love column, mostly because the people in it often seemed to have oddball romances not unlike my mine and Chris’s. So, I wrote an essay, pulling a lot from that thesis, and I submitted it to Modern Love’s editor.

After the piece was published, a couple agents reached out to me and told me they loved the story and wondered if there was a manuscript behind the essay or if this piece was ready to be turned into a book. That really got me motivated to keep writing. My agent and I sold the book to Harper as a love story about the successful kidney transplant I had received from my husband. But during the process of completing the manuscript, the story changed. Real life events forced me to rewrite some pages and add what I never imagined would be there.

I was fascinated by your relationship with your husband, who donated a kidney to you. How did it impact your relationship and do you feel you somehow understand him more because of it?

I think we both looked at the transplant as a union. I understood his heart a little better, and how he ached when I ached, how he was happy only when I was happy, and vice versa. That helped me get a glimpse into what marriage is about. Even though we weren’t married at the time, the transplant symbolized a commitment we were willing to make to each other. It solidified a feeling that was already there.

I’ve always struggled with the idea of sacrifice. From the recipient’s perspective, it was hard for me to accept such a gift without feeling the full spectrum of emotions: love, joy, gratitude, guilt, worry, concern, fear. And while there is a certain about of responsibility that comes with receiving an organ, there is also this sense that my donors were giving me these gifts so that I could have a full life, and so that I could live the life that I imagined for myself.

So, after our transplant, I fully understood why my good-hearted people like my husband make the sacrifices they make, why good people do good things.

You've had three different donors. How did each donation change your relationships?

My first transplant was from my brother, Joel. When he donated his kidney, he was just barely an adult (I was eighteen and he was twenty-two). And yet for him, this mature decision to donate was automatic. He didn’t even mull the situation over. He knew that he was the best candidate for the surgery, and so he immediately signed himself up for the task. I had a hard time seeing him go through the recovery. That was the early 90’s, when the surgery for the donor was more involved. But, as always, he was cool and constant. He’s taught me a lot about strength, duty, and doing the right thing. I always idolized while we growing up, and now, I do even more so.

As the book details, Chris and I were wading through uncharted territory post-transplant. We were both still just dating and trying to figure out what would happen next. Questions about marriage, family, love, and sacrifice get a little trickier when there is something like a transplant involved. So after his donation, I would say our relationship became more defined, in a way, and we laid out a precedent for how we were going to handle future twists and turns in life. But learning these things did not come easily.

And my last donor, Maggie, was a friend from graduate school. Before she knew I was in need of another transplant, she was ready to offer her kidney in an altruistic donation. That’s just the way she’s always been—eager to help someone when she knows she can. She’s taught me so much about selflessness and generosity. She had always been a close friend, but now, she and her wife are members of my family. (In a way, Maggie is a blood relative!). Now, almost two years after the transplant, she and her wife are expecting their first child. I look forward learning more about motherhood from the both of them.

You found love in the midst of a chronic illness--any words of advice to others battling long-term disease? How did you keep your incredible spirit up?

Chris and I have always chosen to look at life as a celebration. Yes, there are hard times, troubling issues, chronic illnesses, and yes, it takes a lot of patience and courage to work through those things. And it’s important to observe and examine your feelings during those moments. Chris and I don’t overlook or laugh off those times of frustration or anger or sadness. We talk them out and write them out; we often let ourselves get emotional. But, we try to not hold on to those feelings for too long. We try to shift our perspective so that we can move beyond them.

Life is a celebration—there’s always something to celebrate. Whether it’s a good doctor’s check-up or making an extraordinarily delicious dinner or having a healthy brilliant, baby girl, there is at least one reason why you should be dancing right now.

What's up next for you?

I want to spend some time enjoying and celebrating my family instead of making them into characters and writing about them. We’ve had a rough few years, so I’m hoping the rest of our years will be boring and uneventful.

I’d love to find a way to balance motherhood with writing, because so far, I’ve found that doing both is difficult. When I do sneak away a find a few hours to write here and there, I find myself being drawn back to older family stories: my family’s emigration from the Philippines, their adjustment into a new culture, the richness of our ethnic ancestry. So, perhaps a new project will come out of those stories.

What question didn't I ask that I should have?

What kind of response to the book are you receiving from your readers?

I’m finding that readers are connecting with the book in different ways. I’ve received emails from people with chronic illness who say they’ve gone through similar experiences, and they understand how illness takes a toll on every aspect of your life. Young sufferers, particularly, like that I talked about being sick at a young age, during a time of growing and experiencing new things.

Other people have told me that they connected with the discussion of marriage in the book, and they are looking are their relationships differently. I bet there are a lot of women out there asking their husbands, “Would you give me a kidney if I needed one?” Sorry, guys.

Of course, there are people who question the choices I’ve made in my life, and I can’t blame them for doubting me. At times, I doubted myself. But, I’m grateful that the transplants I’ve had enabled me to make those choices, that they’ve opened up my world to hope and possibility. That is what living on this earth should be about.

Angela Balcita

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